On Dec. 16, the National Union for Healthcare Workers began a week-long strike at Kaiser Permanente’s Clairemont Mesa Blvd facility in San Diego, California. The mobilization is part of a state-wide picket.
The union claims that Kaiser has failed to give consistent and adequate health care to patients and highlights the poor treatment of mental health care patients. Last year, the union brought attention to the debilitating conditions of mental health care under Kaiser with a similar week-long Cstrike. Hundreds of union members marched in the streets at its peak. This year, members hope even more show their support. They hope to pressure this multi-billion dollar consortium of for-profit and not-for-profit entities to adjust its standards so all patients get better care.
“Kaiser sits on forty billion. Get an appointment? One in a million!” chanted marchers by busy morning traffic. Patients under Kaiser have long complained about the often months-long delays for health care. Issues range from gender-affirming health care services for trans people, to reproductive health, and treatment for injuries. This week’s strike centers on Kaiser’s mental health care, where people have to wait up to three months for prescriptions of psychiatric drugs. Waiting periods are even longer for additional care with a licensed therapist. These waiting periods are made more debilitating by the mental health care workers being understaffed, underpaid, and given inadequate work conditions to help patients.
When asked by Liberation News why the union is choosing to fight, Michelle of the NUHW says, “It’s really about parity, it’s about fairness, about treating mental health care the same way we treat physical health care.” Members of the union have long wanted to provide adequate care for patients but are unable to do so despite Kaiser having a net worth of over $40 billion as of 2018, and nationwide ubiquity as a health care provider.
“When I left, people waited typically 6 to 10 weeks for a return appointment … one of the more senior patients are waiting [for] three months for a return appointment,” says retired NUHW member Pam Rude. She was hired 20 years ago as an Urgent Care nurse to help patients unable to access assigned therapists under the same Kaiser system. Active union members say the problems she was sent in to assist with decades ago have only gotten worse.
The very long wait times have severely impacted Kaiser’s mental health patients and their families. One mother from the community, Maria, remarked to Liberation News, “We could never get an appointment when she was in crisis.” She arrived carrying a picture of her daughter, Chloe, who unfortunately passed away by suicide after having been subjected to long wait periods in between her appointments with her therapist at Kaiser. “Health care delayed is health care denied!” chanted the picketers whilst carrying pictures of other suicide victims who passed while seeking mental health care at Kaiser.
Many workers feel that Kaiser has the resources to hire more therapists but has chosen not to. Jim from NUHW claims: “We tried working internally to resolve issues, especially short staffing and long wait times. … We get to a point where we can see Kaiser Permanente does not want to treat mental health with the same level of respect as the other departments and employees. At this point, we decided to go public to apply pressure on the executives of Kaiser Permanente, and exercise our rights to resolve the short staff and wait times.”
The workers of NUHW also feel that Kaiser has said previously they will resolve these issues, but their actions speak otherwise. Lisa from the NUHW bargaining committee had this to say to Liberation News: “Part of this is for return-access, and more staffing … which they say they will do, but they may say there is no space. … It’s this constant yes we care, we want to do the right thing, but completely reverse actions, so this is to hold them accountable.”
Kaiser has still not settled on a contract with NUHW that satisfies their demands. If you are interested in supporting NUHW workers in their struggle for better health care from Kaiser, learn more here.